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Pledge of Allegiance Was Created to Sell Flags to US Schools?


Claim:

The Pledge of Allegiance was created to sell flags to U.S. schools.

Rating:

What’s True

It’s true that the Pledge of Allegiance was created in part to sell flags to U.S. schools …

What’s False

However, that wasn’t the only reason. The Pledge of Allegiance also was created to venerate the flag and “foster patriotism,” in addition to boosting revenue for a popular magazine in the late 1800s by selling flags and subscriptions.

For years, a rumor has circulated online that the Pledge of Allegiance was a “marketing tool” used to sell more flags to U.S. schools. A reddit user posted the claim in the subreddit r/todayilearned in 2017, for example. This claim has also circulated on other social media sites, such as Facebook and X, and is partly true, though selling flags wasn’t the only reason the pledge was created. 

In 1888, one of the largest publications in the United Sates, The Youth’s Companion, started a school flag campaign to increase patriotism after the magazine’s marketing director, John Upham, saw a lack thereof. He wanted more flags to be put into schools across the nation. Richard J. Ellis, a professor of political science at Willamette University, wrote about the scheme in his 2005 book “To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance.” 

In its October 1888 premium issue, the Youth’s Companion for the first time offered American flags for purchase. Flags of various sizes were offered to readers at reduced prices, from thirty cents for a 12-by-18-inch decorative silk flag to fifteen dollars for a giant 10-by-20-foot bunting flag. A 3-by-5-foot bunting flag could be obtained for two dollars, or for two subscriptions and seventy-five cents, and a 2-by-3-foot silk flag could be had for one dollar, or for one new subscriber and forty cents. The hope, the advertisement announced, was “to encourage the idea of Flag decoration in home and school-room.” The Companion lamented that while “we decorate our homes most profusely,” we seldom use “that most beautiful and inspiring of objects, the American Flag.” The magazine hoped that the “Stars and Stripes [might] be hung upon the walls of every home, and of every school room in the land” so that “patriotism and love of liberty [would] be unceasingly taught.

(Smithsonian Institute)

A report from University of Rochester Library Bulletin described Upham’s campaign:

“When I was a boy in the little red schoolhouse,” [Upham] said, “every Friday some boy declaimed Webster’s speeches about the Union and the forefathers. We were brought up in the very atmosphere of patriotism. Are the children getting that culture now? No. We must start it up again. The flag will do it. I want to see the flag over every schoolhouse. What is more, I want the children to put it there themselves. I want them to raise the money to buy their flag. If they do that, the Boards of Education will give the staff. When we get that well started we’ll go further. We will get up a flag-raising exercise for the children to join in saying. What a great thing that will be.

“Think of it. A flag over every school to remind the children that they belong to the nation as well as the town. Then, the children every day uniting before the flag in patriotic exercises which will stir up their love of country.”

That was the programmed work actually undertaken in 1891. It was never talked about in the newspapers. It was never advertised outside of the promotion notices of The Youth’s Companion itself. It was a still hunt, one school after another. The usual method was to offer to any pupil in any school, free, a hundred cards on which were printed the words:

This Certificate, representing a 10 cent contribution, entitles the holder to One Share in the patriotic influence of the School Flag.

Those hundred cards at ten cents each covered the wholesale cost of the good-sized, substantial flag.

This frank little scheme worked amazingly. In a year’s time it was estimated that thirty thousand flags had been raised in front of schoolhouses from Maine to California. By that time the educational papers were talking about the movement and teachers’ conventions were helping it along. Various patriotic organizations recognized it.

After the success of the flag campaign from 1888-91, Upham started a new campaign centered around a celebration of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. In a Youth’s Companion issue from Sept. 8, 1892, the instructions for the “National School Celebration of Columbus Day” were printed and featured the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time. The magazine gave away a flag with every new subscription, which family members of the author, Francis Bellamy, said grew from 400,000 to 600,000 after the 1892 marketing campaign. 

In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the United States Flag Code into law, codifying existing rules regarding civilian display of the flag. The Flag Code outlines the correct way to deliver the pledge. In 1954, under the Eisenhower administration, the phrase “under God” was inserted into the pledge immediately after “one nation” to emphasize the United States’ rejection of “godless Communism.” Since the pledge’s initial installation in public schools in the 1800s, numerous people have criticized it, even leading to several U.S. Supreme Court cases. Most notably, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943, the high court reversed a previous ruling that stated a public school could force students to recite the pledge in the classroom. 

Before all of that, the Pledge of Allegiance was a catalyst for the rise in sales of the Youth’s Companion magazine and also flags in its first rendition in classrooms across the nation in 1892. Marketing American flags to schools was one of the reasons for the creation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but not the only reason. On that basis, we have labeled this claim a “Mixture” of true and false.

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